Sea Turtle Survival on Amelia Island – For what it’s worth

Fining a business $5,000 for allegedly causing death of sea turtles does not provide sustainable solution for the future

Turtles on Amelia Island

Only twenty hatchlings survive the coldest night of the Amelia Island Turtle season.

Hatching is the most dangerous time for sea turtles. Guided by the low, open horizon, newborns dash for the sea and only safety in numbers protects them from birds and crabs. And the next part of their trip is not too cozy either as sharks and predatory fish patrol shallow waters, waiting to prey upon hatchlings. Scientists estimate only 1 of 100 turtles live to become an adult. However, once these turtles become adults, some 20 years after having hatched, there are very few ocean organisms that predate them. Of course there is always mankind to make that statement false. The Turtle survivorship curve is known as Type III because hatchlings endure high mortality rates, while adults thrive.

Oh I know I’m not going to be popular in certain circles with the following opinion piece, but I need to say something about the turtle protection ordinances on this island and maybe the State of Florida, that may help creating a better sustainable future.

We have written on numerous occasions about the need to protect Turtles and my disclaimer for the following opinion hinges on the fact that even though I love all animals, when it comes to economic dependency, I will try to find a realistically sustainable balance .  Not always easy, especially not when there are so many diverging interests at play on this island.

When I see a snake on the road warming on the asphalt, I chase it back into the safety of the brushes, before the next joyriding teenager needs to prove that he can kill a snake with a car. When I see a turtle cross the road I stop traffic for a safe crossing in stark contrast to jerks in trucks who swerve across the road just to hit the poor animal (you know who you are!). Last year I asked a surfer to take a little struggling hatchling on his board way out into the water and release it there. I was trying to give it a fighting chance, even though I knew it was probably not going to be strong enough to make it. But it was quite a sight seeing the surfer pushing his board with that little turtle sitting in the middle of it. I’m a softy when it comes to animals and I strongly believe that we have a responsibility to protect them as we are more and more encroaching on their territories. But don’t for one minute think I’m a bleeding heart. Because realities dictate life, even for animals and especially for Sea Turtles.

The story of the Sea Turtles is that all species of sea turtles are listed as threatened or endangered. The leatherback, Kemp’s Ridley, and hawksbill sea turtles are critically endangered. The Olive Ridley and green sea turtles are endangered, and the loggerhead is threatened. The flatback’s conservation status is unclear due to lack of data but they seem to be doing okay in Northern Australia. Green Turtles and Loggerheads is what we host mostly here on Amelia Island.

Learning How to Improve the Survival Rate of Turtles

• One of the most significant threats was, and in certain areas still comes from by-catch due to imprecise fishing methods. Long-lining has been identified as a major cause of accidental sea turtle death. Sea turtles must surface to breathe. Caught in a fisherman’s net, they are unable to surface and thus drown. In early 2007, almost a thousand sea turtles were killed inadvertently in the Bay of Bengal over the course of a few months after netting. We learned soon after that some relatively inexpensive changes to fishing techniques, such as slightly larger hooks and traps from which sea turtles can escape, can dramatically cut the mortality rate. Turtle Excluder Devices have reduced sea turtle by-catch in shrimp nets by 97 percent. That’s a valuable improvement.

• Another danger comes from marine debris, especially from abandoned fishing nets in which they can become entangled. A plastic bag in the ocean is a killer, but even the filter of a cigarette butt can get stuck in a little turtle’s windpipe and kill. Not unenforceable laws, but only human behavior can change this.

• Another major threat to sea turtles is black-market trade in eggs and meat as well as black-market demand for tortoiseshell for both decoration and supposed health benefits.  I know backstreet establishments in Key West where Turtle Steaks are the number one consumed item on the menu, next to Turtle Soup. This is a problem throughout the world. Sea turtles are often consumed during the season of Lent, even though they are reptiles, not fish. Consequently, conservation organizations have written letters to the Pope and other religious leaders to ban sea turtles meat from the approved list of foods.

• Since the attraction to live on the beach is ingrained in the American Dream, beach development has become another area which threatens sea turtles procreation. Since many sea turtles return to the same beach each time to nest, development can disrupt the cycle, but given the actual nest building even in developed beach fronts, protection activities need to change from prevention to include protection. In a growing number of areas on the east coast of Florida, conservationists dig up sea turtle eggs and relocate them to fenced nurseries to protect them from beach traffic.

• With development comes the danger of light. Since hatchlings find their way to the ocean by crawling towards the brightest horizon, they can become disoriented on developed stretches of coastline. Lighting restrictions can prevent lights from shining on the beach and confusing hatchlings. Sea turtle-safe lighting uses red or amber LED light, invisible to sea turtles, in place of white light.

The media hyped case of Dr. Carmen Martinez and the Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast

The first nest of the season

Local and Jacksonville media are now making a big case out of the fact that Carmen Martinez, owner of the Amelia OceanFront Bed and Breakfast on Fletcher Ave, allegedly left ocean facing lights on at her property which caused some hatchlings to be disoriented and instead of scrambling to the waterline were struck and killed by cars on Fletcher Ave. Reality is that Dr. Martinez tried to comply with the ordinances but as an off property operator of the Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast, she entirely depends on her guests to follow the request to not turn lights on at night. Her B&B, which does not have owner quarters, is directly on the beach and if not one but TWO turtle moms decide this year to dig one of their nests 20 feet from the building, the issue of survival for the hatchlings puts a certain responsibility on The local Turtle Watch, instead of leaving the responsibilities with an already beleaguered  business owner. Here is what I found while studying the Amelia Island Turtle Watch website (they keep great administrative track).

It turns out that the 1735 House (renamed by Carmen Martinez into Amelia Oceanfront B&B when she bought the property a couple of years ago) was the recipient of 2 Nests this year, apparently almost at the same spot and in a crossover time frame. The first nest number 88 for the year, was found on June 27 by W. Dewitt and K. Cain, marked as KC6, Insitu, which means the nest was left on site and not removed, located behind the Oceanfront Bed & Breakfast (1735 House) just north of beach access 6.

The second nest, numbered 126 for the year, marked as EH10 and discovered on July 17, just 20 days after the first nest, also received the location marker “North edge of 1735 House, just north of beach access 6 (green turtle).”
It appears that both nests must have been near or on top of each other, reason enough to think that maybe one or both should have been relocated to another site.

Nest KC6 hatched on August 18 with no significant problems. Out of the 156 egg shards counted, 130 hatchlings emerged safely to the water, 10 didn’t hatch, 8 were found live in the nest and 18 were found dead in the nest. All accounted for. Nest EH10 hatched on September 7 and the numbers for this nest are 188 shards, 185 live turtles emerged, while the other 3 decided not to leave the egg.

So far I can only say that the area around Amelia Oceanfront Bed and Breakfast is apparently quite fertile and in demand, since both nests were by far the largest of the 2011 Nesting Season here on Amelia Island, and a total of 315 hatchlings made it to the water. Frankly I’m a bit at a loss with the allegation that hatchlings died on the road as a result of lights being turned on at the Inn. Unless other nests in the vicinity hatched (I could only find one, much earlier in the season, on the list of 156 nests this year) and the hatchlings decided to walk the beach parallel until they hit the Inn for a scroll to the road, I cannot find any information on what nest became the victim of night light exposure.

In any case here is how the Annual Process of Turtle Protection on Amelia Island unfolds. In nesting season (May through August) nest spotters (volunteers) come out every morning to clearly mark and picket new nests. I’ve seen it dozens of times since June as I walk a stretch of the beach every morning.

Every nest is dated, marked and numbered. The hatching time for a nest is between 50 and 60 days; 60 days in which several actions could and should have been taken in the case of the Oceanfront B&B.

Turtles on Amelia Island

First turtle of the season

• One or both nests could have been moved to safer spots. Not illogical considering that it was this close to an active Bed and Breakfast business.

• If the day of nesting is known, why not take measures for the date of hatching, even if you give it a 10 day breathing space?
Protection measures such as:
a. check at night which lights could be distracting the hatchlings, once they come out and ask to replace them for the 10 day time period with red or amber LED lights

b. place a 5 feet wide, one foot high net as a chute with the opening facing the ocean around the nest. Even if the hatchling gets caught by the small mazed net, its efforts to get out will ultimately lead to face the light on the surface of the ocean and move that way.

c. Buy a half open wind tent that blocks off any light from the land side and place it around the nest to be hatched. Again the approximate time of hatching is known so it’s a matter of scheduling. I’ll be happy to donate some tents. I see them on the beach every day with young children being sheltered from wind and sun.

d. I have seen in many countries around the globe, where wildlife is protected by road signs and temporary flashing yellow lights during mating seasons and other events. Again, if we know the approximate time frame of hatching, why not mark the street with SLOW signs and yellow caution lights and even the city’s speed meter, and have motorists take part in the responsibility to keep the turtles alive? After all they are the ones that do the actual killing.

Amelia Island is A Tourist Destination

And even though I admire the work of so many volunteers to protect these beautiful reptiles, the responsibility of the burden to protect Sea Turtles can not become a measuring stick in the hands of fanaticism and certainly a harsh fine for Mrs Martinez is not going to change the fact that she has little control over her B&B guests behavior leaving bedroom lights or outside spots on, no matter how many times she prints leaflets to that effect. Besides the fact that this request in a tourism economy is almost impossible to adhere to, since most tourists do not care too much about turning air conditioners off when leaving the room, or turning lights off, or taking short showers where water is an expensive commodity like in the Caribbean. Most tourists spend their money on celebrating life in all its excess while on vacation. I have built and operated several resorts, hotels and inns over the past 33 years and learned that expecting guests to entirely comply with the innkeeper’s requests and local ordinances, is totally stupid. Expect the worst and prepare for the best is my motto.  A phone call from the Turtle Watch to Mrs. Martinez 10 days prior to expected hatching to put dim lights in outside outlets, could have worked much better for all parties involved.

But causes often create a form of emotional fanaticism, and the problem with that is anchored in George Santayana’s definition of fanaticism as “redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim“. Winston Churchill said: “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject“. By either description a fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for deviating ideas or opinions. I hope this is not the case here, because I know  Mrs. Martinez to be a caring person, who will do anything in her ability to support the cause of protecting sea turtles, while still being able to run a viable tourist business on the beach.

My experience is also that when the business is rendered unsustainable because of ever encroaching compliance of regulations, taxes and ordinances, we can expect to live on a ghost island soon, especially since the economy does not seem to be bringing  relief anytime soon. Our local authorities and administrators better keep that in mind when they start sharpening their pencils and push even more entities out of business .

Last but not least to be complete on the threats that face Sea Turtles: Climate change may also cause a threat to sea turtles. Since sand temperature at nesting beaches defines the sex of a sea turtle while developing in the egg, there is concern that rising temperatures may produce too many females. However, more research is needed to understand how climate change might affect sea turtle gender distribution and what other possible threats it may pose. Here on Amelia Island we already know from experience that late season nests often have a large number of dead hatchlings, as the sand turns cooler in late September.

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